Unorthodox arrangements create visual magic at this Adelaide gallery, writes Brian Johnston.
It's curious, the things people fuss about. True, I'm unnerved to see two headless horses hanging from the ceiling - not something I expect in a state art gallery - yet a more traditional artwork depicting George III in the same room shows him draped in ermine and I hear no tut-tutting. Skin an ermine and you're posh. Behead a horse and visitors write letters of complaint.
Anyway, why the equine angst? The themes of art are always disturbing. I've walked through many an art gallery's scenes of rape, revenge, murder and death.
The Melrose Wing, at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, reopened this year after an 18-month refurbishment, is no different. But it brings such themes into sharp focus by abandoning chronology and rearranging its collection by topic.
The result is confrontational but brilliant. Like a good horror movie, the Melrose Wing lures me in gently. Its first gallery takes the persistent influence of classicism as its theme.
Beauty and harmony provide the pretty side to artworks that span 2000 years and include not just painting, but sculpture, ceramics and furniture.
The rearrangement is provocative and clever. It shows how past art influences later generations, and how various art forms influence each other, right down to dining-room chair design.
This is the kind of art that the horse protestors accept. But in the next gallery, the Human Condition, there's no idealised perfection, just depictions of human poverty. The headless horses (We Are All Flesh) are a grotesquely powerful meditation on suffering.
To me, a video installation in the lush gallery entitled Seduced is more disturbing. It spools clippings from 1950s movies in which leading ladies are backhanded and thrown to the floor during lovers' tiffs. In such condensed form, the scenes are a shockingly brutal reminder of the dark side of seduction.
Love and grief are inseparable, as the Memento Mori gallery reminds me. It's the most predictable of the themed rooms, grimly confronting death with ticking clocks, religious art and Etruscan funerary objects - but haunting nevertheless.
Galleries can sometimes be dull, dutiful places, but the Melrose Wing actively engages. Certainly, I've been jolted out of an ordinary morning of sightseeing to think about life, love and what it means to be human. In an era of vacuous entertainment, I find an unexpected and thrilling reminder of the purpose of art.
The writer travelled courtesy of Accor Hotels.
Qantas flies to Adelaide from Sydney (2 hours) and Melbourne (1 hr 15 min). Economy fare from $99 (Melbourne) and $129 (Sydney). Phone 13 13 13, see qantas.com.au
The historic Mercure Grosvenor Hotel, near the Art Gallery of South Australia, has economy rooms from $99 and newly refurbished standard rooms from $139 a night. 125 North Terrace, phone 08 8407 8888, see mercuregrosvenorhotel.com.au
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The Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace, free. Phone 08 8207 7000, see artgallery.sa.gov.au
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